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Northwest electrification: stimulus or stupidity?

Putting Highway 37 on the electric grid is a “stupid idea” masquerading as economic stimulus, environmentalist Will Horter says.

Premier Gordon Campbell announced earlier this week that B.C. will seek federal infrastructure funding for the electrification of Highway 37. The project would extend the power grid more than 300 kilometres north of Terrace, at a cost of $400 million.

Two years ago, after the Campbell government began to focus on climate change, the project was sold as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by getting the small communities along the highway off their “dirty diesel” generators.

At the time, environmentalists complained that the same result could be accomplished for a small fraction of the cost using micro-hydro power.

Now, with the economy tanking and climate change seemingly taking a lower profile in government, the electrification of Highway 37 is being sold as a recession fighter.

“The premier has taken a visionary approach to northwest B.C. electrification,” Initiatives Prince George president and CEO Tim McEwan said following Campbell’s pledge to seek federal infrastructure money. “By directing funds provided by the federal budget towards the electrification of Highway 37, the B.C. and federal governments would open up the development potential in the Northwest.”

But Horter, the executive director of the Dogwood Initiative, was less enthusiastic. He said he predicted such a move recently in an email to his group’s board.

“I’m not surprised,” Horter told The Tyee. “Every stupid idea is going to get floated as a stimulus package. The mining companies who can’t raise a nickel for anything are going to try to get the government to pay for this sucker.”

No matter how it’s been sold, the electrification of Highway 37 has always been about the government taking care of electricity, the single biggest cost for mining companies that hope to dig in B.C.’s far northwest, Horter said.

Despite the former attempts to sell the project as environmentally friendly, serious questions have been raised about the mining schemes by environmentalists and First Nations, he said. And the credit crunch and falling commodity prices have made northwest mining schemes even less viable, he added.

“In these economic times, I don’t think many of these mines would go forward. So this is just a really bad idea.”

Horter predicted that there’ll be promises of B.C. government money for other such projects in the coming days.

“I think we’re going to see in the Throne Speech and the budget in the next few weeks some really harebrained ideas that are couched as economic stimulus,” he said. “Every sunset industry and every industry that’s in trouble that’s ever had a wish list has dusted it off, put a nice ribbon around it and sent it to the premier’s office as a stimulus package.

“But if it looks like a bag of poo and it smells like a bag of poo it’s probably a bag of poo. It doesn’t matter what kind of little package you put around it.”

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor at The Tyee.

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